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FILE PHOTO: Lifeguards transfer migrants to the former fishing vessel Golfo Azzurro during a rescue operation, as lifeguards from the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescue all 112 on aboard, including two pregnant women and five children, as it drifts out of control in the central Mediterranean Sea, some 36 nautical miles off the Libyan coast January 2, 2017. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis/File Photo

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By Yannis Behrakis and Steve Scherer

ABOARD THE GOLFO AZZURRO/ROME (Reuters) - Aid groups operating rescue ships in the Mediterranean have rejected suspicions raised by an Italian prosecutor that by saving tens of thousands of migrants they are effectively aiding Libya-based people smugglers.

On Tuesday, humanitarian vessels brought in almost 1,200 migrants picked up in previous days to ports in Sicily, while the Golfo Azzurro, an NGO ship, sped towards more boats that had left Libya possibly packed with migrants and refugees.

"If we are not there to save these people and offer them a helping hand, then they will have no chance to survive," said Riccardo Gatti, field coordinator on the Golfo Azzurro, which is operated by the NGO Proactiva Open Arms.

The number of migrants rescued from boats off the coast of Libya, where people smugglers operate with impunity, has jumped to more than 23,000 so far this year, 60 percent more than in the same period last year, and some 600 people are estimated to have drowned.

In all, 181,000 migrants reached Italy in 2016 - about half of the total who arrived in the European Union by sea - while 4,581 people are thought to have died trying to reach the country on flimsy, overpacked vessels.

Carmelo Zuccaro, chief prosecutor in the Sicilian city of Catania, has formed a task force to investigate whether the non-governmental organisations are funded by smugglers. In testimony to parliament last week, Zuccaro said he suspected there were direct ties, though he had no proof.

That prompted parliament to open its own act-finding investigation into the matter on Thursday.

"ABSURD"

Deputy Foreign Minister Mario Giro told Reuters on Monday that he considered the accusations "absurd" because Italy's Coastguard oversees all rescues.

Giro said that the accusations were being made by those who think the rescuers are a "pull factor", attracting more migrants to Europe by making the passage easier.

"If a mother is so desperate she puts a child on a boat, you can't blame it on a 'pull factor'," Giro said in an interview.

However, the commander of the European Union's anti-smuggling operation, Admiral Enrico Credendino, told an Italian newspaper last week that the NGOs were a pull factor and that they used spotlights to signal their position to smugglers.

At the weekend, Paolo Grimoldi of the anti-immigrant Northern League party said the NGOs were operating a "taxi service" for migrants.

Sea-Watch, SOS Mediterranee, Doctors without Borders and the other NGOs operating in the Mediterranean have all denied the accusations.

NGOs started operating boats to help migrants in May of last year, completing 26 percent of all rescues, while Italy's Coastguard and Navy together tallied more than 40 percent. Merchant ships, EU border agency Frontex, ships in the EU anti-smuggling mission and other foreign naval vessels picked up the rest.

Zuccaro said the NGOs had carried out 50 percent of the rescues so far this year, suggesting their role was growing.

Italy's Coastguard coordinates all sea rescues from a Rome-based control centre. "The coordination with the Italian Coastguard is perfect, we never had problems," said Gatti.

When asked about the investigations into the NGO operations, a Coastguard spokesman declined to comment.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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